* Federal judge sides with Indian tribe on Tessera plant
* Rules government did not adequately consult with tribe
* Says Quechan tribe could suffer “irreparable harm” (Adds company comment, BLM comment, details on California solar industry)
By Sarah McBride
LOS ANGELES, Dec 16 (Reuters) - A federal judge has granted the Quechan Indian Tribe’s request to halt work temporarily on a massive California solar plant under development by NTR’s (NTRb.CO) Tessera Solar.
The move represents something of a roadblock for efforts to bring more solar power to California and the United States and will likely bolster the position of groups fighting to stop construction of solar plants around the Southwest.
Conflicts between solar proponents and foes are taking on growing importance as the industry experiences a boom, particularly for California.
Last year, just three new utility-scale solar plants serving the state came online, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Now, there are more than 40 with contracts or pending contracts with the state’s utilities under development.
While fostering renewable energy has become an important federal and state goal, proposed plants are meeting increasing resistance from groups that believe the plants will do irreparable harm to threatened or endangered plants and animals, and in this case historic areas.
United States District Judge Larry Burns ruled late on Wednesday that the federal government failed to consult adequately with the tribe before approving the planned solar plant, which is slated for tribal lands in the Imperial Valley, near California’s border with Mexico.
“Tessera Solar is deeply disappointed with the federal court’s ruling last night,” said Robert Lukefahr, CEO of Tessera Solar, in a statement. “This ruling sets back our ability to provide clean, renewable power to Southern California and delays our ability to bring jobs and economic development” to the region, which suffers from particularly high unemployment.
The 709-megawatt plant, enough to power at least 140,000 homes, is part of a group of fast-tracked solar projects that were slated for review by year-end.
In part, that deadline was designed to ensure the plants would qualify for a stimulus grant that was set to expire Dec. 31. But now it seems likely that Congress will extend the grant program by another year.
Deadlines notwithstanding, “government agencies are not free to glide over requirements imposed by Congressionally-approved statutes and duly adopted regulations,” Judge Burns wrote in his order.
He further noted that the Department of the Interior, the key defendant in the tribe’s suit, helped draft the requirements at issue. Congress and the DOI “could have made these consulting requirements less stringent, but they didn‘t,” he wrote.
Burial areas and other significant landmarks are scattered across the proposed plant’s site.
To some extent, the lawsuit is moot. The development of the Imperial Valley plant, plus Tessera’s 664-megawatt Calico solar plant, are on hold, a Tessera spokeswoman told Reuters last week. The company is looking for ways to finance the plants, which would each cost around $2 billion to build.
Parent company NTR told investors last week it had written down the value of its solar-development business by 96 million euros ($127 million).
The Quechan tribe must email a proposed order temporarily enjoining the project by Friday.
A spokeswoman at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management said the BLM was still studying the ruling. Lawyers for the Quechan tribe did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Several other planned solar plants are running into trouble with various parties. A group including the Audubon Society is suing to block a plant under development by Solargen in central California’s Panoche Valley. (Reporting by Sarah McBride; Editing by Hans Peters and Matthew Lewis)